THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID ABOUT USING A STANDARD SET OF RULES IN A SERIES. One advantage is moving from game to game in the series is easier because the learning curve is reduced. A disadvantage often is the game starts feeling too generic and loses the essence of each different conflict. My recent look at Brief Border Wars (Compass Games, 2020) showed me how a good set of series rules can work with just a few exclusive rules to make different, interesting games. Recently, I took advantage of a sale by Multi-Man Publishing and picked up a few different games. Amongst the acquisitions were two games in their Standard Combat Series. I was able to get one of them, Panzer Battles: 11th Panzer on the Chir River (MMP, 2016) to the table quickly. I am happy to discover that while the game is ‘standard,’ it also is very unique. More importantly, Panzer Battles teaches us about command and control in warfare; lessons learned over 75 years ago but still applicable today.
MMP describes their Standard Combat Series (SCS) as this:
The Standard Combat Series (SCS) enables both experienced and beginning players to enjoy simple to play and quick to learn games. Each game is a quick-start, complete simulation: rules, a detailed color map, 280 counters, and everything else needed to recreate the campaign in question.
With that description in mind I really didn’t have the highest of expectations. I mean, a game that can be played by both experienced and beginner players is a wide range of abilities. Consider too that MMP is the home of Advanced Squad Leader, anything but an uncomplicated game!
When one opens the box, the first impression is a very simple game. In the case of Panzer Battles you get two 22″x34″ mapsheets, one countersheet of 280 1/2″ counters, one Series rule book and one game-specific rule book. Oh yeah – two dice.
The Series rule book is eight (8) pages, with page 8 being totally devoted to Designer’s Notes. For longtime Grognards there is nothing special, unique, or unexpected here. The SCS is bog-standard hex & counter wargame. The Series rules have 13 major sections:
- Sequence of Play
- Zones of Control (ZOCs)
- Overrun Combat
- Step Losses
- Advance After Combat
- Hex Control
When you get to the game-specific rule book (12 pages) you start to discover the non-standard of the SCS. In the case of Panzer Battles, designer Dean Essig wanted to capture what made the mobile defensive warfare of the German 11th Panzer Division so special. In Panzer Battles, he showcases the battles fought by 11th Panzer along the Chir River in December, 1942 when they acted as a ‘fire brigade’ against Soviet advances (for details on the battles see here). Basically stated, you have a heavily outnumbered, predominantly infantry force defending with armor in support against a numerically superior, yet doctrinally rigid, mechanized attacker.
Panzer Battles, the wargame, appears to draw it’s title from Panzer Battles, the book, written by Maj. Gen F.W. von Mellenthin (University of Oklahoma Press, 1956). The book even appears to be the origin of the “fire brigade’ phrase. In the 1970’s when the US Army was developing their Air-Land Battle Doctrine, the mobile defensive warfare of General Balck and the 11th Panzer were studied for its application to NATO defense. In 2020 a similar defensive need exists in Poland, Taiwan, or Korea, making the study and understanding of the Chir River battles important even today. It is also relevant to the modern day study of Mission Command, a phrase often used (not always correctly) to describe the command and control philosophy of General Balck – Auftragstaktik.
In order to showcase the Auftragstaktik command and control approach that underpinned 11th Panzer’s actions, Mr. Essig choses to introduce one of my favorite gaming mechanisms, the chit-pull mechanic, into the game. In Panzer Battles, the 11th Panzer Division usually has multiple chits in their draw cup, meaning the force will activate more often. There are a few other game-specific rules (like 1.7 Disorganized Units or 1.10 Barrages) that also capture essential elements of mobile warfare but it is rule 1.8 Activations that is the heart of Panzer Battles.
The end result in Panzer Battles is a wargame that delivers what it promises. The chit-pull activation system shows how the different command and control approach of the 11th Panzer enables it to be that ‘fire brigade’ that rapidly moves about the battlefield to (hopefully) be at the right place at the right time to face the Soviet offensive. It is an excellent case study of Auftragstaktik.
Panzer Battles is not without it’s drawbacks. In my case the quibbles are minor and center on those small counters. As a graying Grognard, I am challenged to see and handle small 1/2″ counters. Even my wargame tweezers don’t always help. One good part is with only 280 counters, rounding the corners (at 2mm radius) doesn’t take forever! Also, at two maps Panzer Battles has a bigger footprint (44″x34″) than I expected, especially in a game with only 280 counters (speak about low counter density….).
Further, while Panzer Battles illustrates the advantage of Auftragstaktik, it does not give the players insight into how to achieve it. In game terms, the chit-pull mechanic clearly illustrates the impact of Auftragstaktik but not how to create it – it’s ‘baked into’ the chits and simply handed the players.
Overall though, I am impressed with Panzer Battles and look forward to more SCS games. I already own Heights of Courage: The Battle for the Golan Heights, October 1973 (MMP, 2013). In that game the ‘gimmick” is an ability chose a ‘Fast’ or ‘Slow’ optempo. I will keep my eyes open for other MMP sales; the regular price of Panzer Battles is presently $48 – in my opinion a little bit steep, but probably fair in today’s economy, for what you get.
Now, about the Grand Tactical Series game Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (MMP, 2017) and the houseful of maps and counters….
Feature image courtesy Multi-Man Publishing